Many years ago, in a hot, crowded classroom in St. Petersburg, Russia, I had the chance to ask Dave Eggers a question. I was young, perilously close to being kinda nuts, and relatively fresh off the boat from a spell as a cub journalist in Cambodia.
As a result, I was more strident than I was informed. And The New Yorker had (finally, I thought, knowing nothing) run a story about Cambodia. But it was a feature about a chef! It was light and inconsequential and had nothing to say about genocide, the legless, land grabs, and corrupt generals — all stuff I was pretty passionate about and suspected that anyone who was not passionate thereabout must be corrected.
So with a chance to make an important correction, my blood boiled with excitement and urgency.
Standing up, clearing my throat, I said this: “Why can’t you do anything serious? Is being funny enough for you? You’re this voice of a generation and it’s all jokes — why not take up the good work of The New Yorker but do it even better?”
Eggers looked at me like I was an asshole. And I was, believe me.
This is what he said in response: “You know The New Yorker is a humor magazine, right?”
I didn’t — and I guess I’m still in denial.
So it was with a similar set of queasily held assumptions and principles that I read Colson Whitehead’s op-ed in The New York Times this morning. It’s a hilariously brilliant satire:
ONE year ago today, we officially became a postracial society. Fifty-three percent of the voters opted for the candidate who would be the first president of African descent, and in doing so eradicated racism forever.
How do I know? I have observed that journalists employ Google searches to lend credence to trend articles, so I compared recent hits on the word “postracial” with those of a previous year. There have been more than 500,000 online mentions of postraciality this year, as opposed to absolutely zero in 1982. Some say that’s because the Internet didn’t really exist back then. I prefer to think it’s because we’ve come a long way as a country.
But does it belong on the Times op-ed page? Is this really what we want out of pages this important, this influential? Or am I still a joyless asshole, too young, strident, and disconnected from a galloping media reality that’s passed me by?
(As a side note I should remark on the fact that Eggers has, since my tone deaf question, only increased his commitment to that which is serious and important. Yay!)